Japheth Kawanguzi, the Man at the Nucleus of Innovation in Uganda

By Mark Kawalya

Japheth Chicco Kawanguzi is a man for whom the proverbial expression “one who has worn many hats” fits like a glove. He has worked jobs that are as different as chalk is from cheese. Currently, he is the team leader at the Innovation Village, a self-sustaining innovators’ hub found in the quiet environs of Ntinda, a Kampala suburb that is quickly gaining traction as an alternative business hub.

The innovation village was developed to serve as a springboard for innovators and entrepreneurs in Uganda, a place where they can interact with a community of local, regional, and global firms to deliver growth.

Early Life

Japheth was born to Paul and Mary Kawanguzi. His parents were both teachers with the education profession serving as the main source of sustenance for the family for many years.

“I never really saw my mother asleep after 4 a.m. She was always up very early, starting her day’s activities before anyone else was awake. On the other hand, my father used to work past 11 p.m., and from a young age we were shown vivid examples of the necessity of work.” Japheth says.   

Chicco was born in 1983 and is the second of three children. “I was the middle child, so I had to get attention at whatever cost,” he chuckles. He has an older brother, and a younger sister.

Japheth had a generally happy childhood, with both parents actively involved in raising him and his siblings. On pay day, their dad would spoil the family after getting his salary, and it was customary for him to tell them to ask him for anything that they wanted. This was always a joyful time in the Kawanguzi household.

He attended a primary school in Kireka that was a faith-based school because his parents believed his character would be moulded by Christian-centred education.

Joining secondary school and clashing with his father

For his secondary school, he joined Bugema Adventist College, and he plugged into school activities like singing in the choir and sports. He didn’t want to return to Bugema Adventist after finishing his ordinary levels. He was accepted to Kiira Collage Butiki after applying. His father, however, objected to him moving to another school, and since father and son had reached a stalemate, Japheth decided to stay home for an entire school term, hoping his father would budge. However, that didn’t happen.

He gave in and returned to Bugema Adventist College for his advanced levels, where he studied economics, geography, and history.

In his senior year, he started working in the family business, which was a school that his parents owned. It was at this point that his father called him to his office one afternoon and informed him about some changes the family was to undergo. “He candidly told me that his earnings could no longer take care of the family satisfactorily. It was for this reason that he had decided to move and seek work in the UK. I didn’t care much about this new development, except that now I could finally boast to my friends that my father was in the UK.” he says with a grin on his face.

When he was 16 years old, his parents made the move to the UK, leaving him to help manage the school.

The party that was university life

Japheth got into university on government sponsorship, much to the delight of his family.

He lived in a hostel that accorded him a great deal of freedom to explore the world, which as a young man he had never experienced. “I started going to the club with a few of my friends. The club experience was intoxicating to my young self. The lights, the music, and the people all combined to make clubbing our number one past time. Very soon, we were clubbing every day and losing track of our studies at the university.

One night at about 3:00 am, a friend I was out clubbing with told me that his life was going downhill and that mine was following a similar trajectory. We sobered up and decided to get our lives in order. That was the end of our clubbing after two long years of a party that had never stopped. To me, this is testament that anyone can change their life if they decide to do it.”

For the first time at university, I actually started reading. He went on and completed his university degree, but was still tied down by the school family business that he was helping his parents manage.

The daunting task of searching for a job

Japheth made a number of job applications with no success. He once applied for a job alongside 1350 other people. He was among the last five applicants to make it to the last round of the interview. “Eventually, a really pretty girl was added to our list, and she ended up getting the job.

I decided to go back to my high school and teach economics and entrepreneurship, following in my parents’ footsteps. My parents were proud of me and that I had matured enough to make a decision that needed such humility.”

He found that teaching was the best job he’d ever had because it required him to stand in front of a class of young minds and help them understand the future. “Everything you say to students is the gospel truth. It made me understand the power of education and the great impact that inspiring the next generation can have.”

Leaving the teaching profession

At the same time, he was cognizant of the fact that he couldn’t raise a family on his salary of UGX230,000 a month. “I remember one December we were called into the staff room around the 18th. The headmistress informed us that there wasn’t enough money to pay everyone. She asked us to divide the UGX150,000 between two teachers so that there would be enough money to move everyone around. We were, however, to be given sugar, cooking oil and some meat. Each item she mentioned that we, the teachers, were to receive elicited appreciative clapping from the other teachers. They were used to this life of living below average.”

This made Japheth realise that he would not grow in this kind of vocation.

He later resigned from the teaching job and got a job working with a consulting firm. He directly worked with corporate Uganda.

It was a grueling 17-hour job that spread into the weekends as well. This job shaped his mindset about what work is. It was a solution-based work. “My boss used to tell me that if I call you looking for a solution to a problem and you do not have the solution, then I will not call you again.” 

Landing a job with perks

He was later hired as the head of talent at Umeme, Uganda’s largest energy distributor. “I sailed through the interview because he knew if I was not hired, I would go back to working my 17-hour job. He worked for Umeme for 5 years.

Back in the day, he noticed innovation competitions organised with local telcos where ideas were vetted before a winner was selected. This was primarily based on how well an entrepreneur could express themselves and their idea. However, Japheth used to sit down and wonder what would happen to the other entrepreneurs who could not articulate themselves very well but had viable business ideas. What about those who were unable to communicate in English. What happens to the 97 that do not win this competition? he wondered.

“My job at Umeme was great. I used to fly business class and had all these other perks that came with the position.” One day he got a newspaper and saw a big talent competition using the previous format that he felt was biased. Something in me drove me to want to do something different about the way these competitions were structured.

Starting the innovation village

He went on and registered his first business, called IDEA (Innovation Drives Entrepreneurship and Achievements). “At this point, I thought all I needed was a good idea. I kept working my job while trying to understand the innovation ecosystem in Uganda.”

He learned that, for example, a small country like Israel (9 million people) gets more venture capital in one month than the whole of Africa gets in one year.  Also, of the 1 billion dollars for African innovation and entrepreneurship, 35% goes to Nigeria, 35% goes to Kenya, and the rest is taken by South Africa. Uganda, the world’s most entrepreneurial country, receives less than 1%. This all led him to question why Uganda was being left behind in the innovation race. These were the thoughts that led him to start thinking in the direction of creating the innovation village.

The start of the project was not unlike many that entrepreneurs typically face. He lacked the necessary capital and was instead backed up by a big dream. He got an angel investor who, although not keen on his business idea but thought he was a terrific young man, gave him $6000. With his team, he was able to grow the money to $15,000, but it sadly ran out in 2 months, leaving them high and dry. But Japheth discovered that to succeed, they could not rely on American or Asian models but instead needed an organic African model. Currently, the Innovation Village is one of Africa’s first self-sustaining business models that has been able to weather the storms for almost a decade now.

However, one of the challenges he faces is that Ugandans have been groomed to go to school and thereafter look for jobs. It becomes very difficult to steer them towards entrepreneurship as a viable option.

One of his biggest successes is a young lady who went on to start a design agency called Red Pineapple, a company that has worked with some of the most reputable firms in Uganda.

On the other side, Japheth is a simple man who does not drink but does love a good glass of Coca-Cola. “There is something magical they put in that stuff.” He laughs. He is married to a lawyer that he met while she was giving him legal advice. He doesn’t consider himself an accomplished foodie with an elaborately developed palate but is happy with a simple breakfast of a few eggs and a slice of toast. In a nutshell, this is the stuff that the man called Japheth Chicco Kawanguzi is made of.

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